MUMBAI: When the government declared data centres as essential service at the onset of the lockdown, many spent between Rs 50 lakh to Rs 2 crore on staff safety and site maintenance to keep the data centres running.
At least 40 data centres across major metros like Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Bengaluru and Chennai, kept critical staff — 10-25 per location — within the premises for over three months of the lockdown in order to minimise the risk of employees getting exposed to Covid-19. These were all male members in their 20s and 30s, the companies told ET.
Data centre providers were able to offset the additional expenditure due to a sudden surge in demand for data storage and computing capacity from companies as online traffic and transactions surged during the lockdown. Most commercial data centres saw business grow by 80-100 per cent in the last four months.
In some cases, employees of these companies have spent over 100 days away from their home and family, either on-site or at hotels arranged by the company nearby.
While 60 per cent-65 per cent of work at a data centre can be performed remotely, it is critical for some technical and on-site 24×7 to maintain and monitor different parameters that ensure the system works smoothly. “Even if one person were to catch the virus, the rest of the staff on duty would have to be quarantined and the data centre would have to remain shut for a brief period for sanitisation. And we have to keep the data centre running all the time,” says Nikhil Rathi, CEO of Web Werks, a data centre provider that rents space to companies to host their servers and equipment for data storage and computing at three locations — Navi Mumbai, Pune, and Noida — in India.
Commercial data centres like Web Werks store and run data applications of various companies across sectors like healthcare, ecommerce, banking, e-learning, video-streaming, telecom, cloud companies, and government agencies, among others. The internet practically runs through servers hosted at these centres.
“One night of downtime at a data centre can wreak havoc especially during these times when everyone is communicating and transacting online,” says Mayuresh Annegiri, GM of data centre operations and technology at Web Werks. Annegiri worked and stayed onsite at Web Werks’ data centre in Rabale at Navi Mumbai from March 17 to July 7, 2020. “For a brief period, we could stay at the nearby hotel. Their kitchen was shut so we arranged for a cook who could prepare food for 25-odd people. Shortly after, though, the hotel turned into a quarantine facility for police personnel from the area as their teammate had tested positive.”
For most of their stay on-site, Annegiri and team used company provided mattresses and duvets and bunkered up in meeting rooms inside the data centre. “It was like living inside a Big Boss house, sans all the fighting,” he quips.
At another data centre provider called GPX, 48 members of its staff were stationed on-site across its two centres in Mumbai. While most of the technical staff has been recently replaced with those who were working from home all this while, about one-fourth of them — like the security personnel — still haven’t left.
“The company made arrangements for its on-site staff to stay at the Marriot hotel close to Mumbai airport for a couple of months until Indians coming back from abroad started staying there for their quarantine period. We even paid an extra incentive to staff members who were asked to stay on-site to appreciate them,” says Umesh Saunshi, director of facilities operations at GPX data centres.
“Our families received letters of assurance from the company while we were away on duty,” says Yusha Patel, senior engineer – facilities operations, at GPX. Patel was among the 48 critical staff members who briefly stayed on-site at one of the company’s data centres.
People like Annegiri and Patel identify themselves as the backend soldiers in this battle against Covid-19. “While there’s a lot of rightfully deserved acknowledgement for frontline warriors like healthcare professionals, police officers, the gig economy workers, to name a few; most people don’t know about the sacrifices we’ve made to ensure everyone gets seamless internet access during these turbulent times,” says Annegiri who stayed away from his wife and 18-month-old baby for over 110 days during this period.
But he doesn’t fret.
Annegiri is overwhelmed at the response of the staff that has been working from home all this while. “They have been insisting we relieve the on-site staff and send them to the centre instead so that their colleagues can go home now. Meanwhile, the on-site staff did not complain even once as they know the risks involved in switching teams,” he says.
“While living and working together and planning for all crises and contingencies these last few months, we have learnt so much that no education institutions can ever teach,” Annegiri concludes.
(This story is part of a series of articles in association with Facebook. Facebook has no editorial role in this story)